Comparisons of Actions vs. Words in Thucydides

We have created a web page that is designed to explore Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Though there are many facets to Thucydides' work, as a group we decided to explore the theme of Actions vs. Words. This theme dominates his work and allows for an exploration not only into Thucydides portrayal of history, but into Greek society’s emotional states and persuasive manner of its many leaders. We felt that all these items were best explored by choosing chapters from Paul Woodruff’s book; Thucydides: On Justice, Power, and Human Nature. Each of us wrote an analysis on a separate chapter so that we could gain insight into Thucydides' world as well as each others interpretations. Now complete; we hope that you will also find more information and insight on one of Greek culture’s celebrated historians. Please enjoy and feel free to click on any one of the links below to find out more about Thucydides and ancient Greek Society.

Produced by: Joe Allen, Erik Holmgren, Kristina Martin, and Kris Straumins.
Quotations from:
Thucydides. On Justice, Power, and Human Nature. Woodruff, Paul (trans.); Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis: 1993. (Unless otherwise noted).

Actions vs. Words…before the Peloponnesian War

Because of Thucydides' comments; "...I have made each speaker say what I thought the situation demanded, keeping near as possible to the general sense of what was actually said." pg 13, it is possible to witness his “neutral” viewpoint using the five speeches leading up to the Peloponnesian War. These speeches intertwine Thucydides relationship of actions and words in a manner that adds insight to the way Greeks thought during this time period.

To help spur the war, the Corinthians, along with their Allies, speak to the Assembly of the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) in a sarcastic tone that is designed to push them to war. The sarcasm and verbal razors attack the ego; which is quite vulnerable especially to the militaristic Lacedaemonians; "...you Lacedaemonians are the only Greeks who prefer procrastination to power as a defense..." pg. 18. "Now please do not think we are speaking out of hostility; this is merely a complaint. Complaints are for friends who make mistakes, accusations for enemies who commit injustice." pg. 19. The Corinthians words begin to persuade the Lacedaemonians into action.

The Athenian response at the same Assembly was just as mocking as the Corinthian speech, but it seemed to condescend more, which of course creates an uncomfortable situation, "…and also that we are a city to be reckoned with…" pg.21. Another passage that relates to this as well as the Athenian hypocrisy; "It has always been established that the weaker are held down by the stronger...and you thought so too, until now that you are reckoning up your own advantage and appealing to justice." pg. 23. The Athenians are clear in saying the correct things, but I think in the wrong manner. The entire speech, though it does defend Athens actions, attack the Lacedaemonian mentality. Words are forcing action.

(Image courtesy of http://www.bucho.org/~dpape/pilot_docs/thucydides/. Sculpture of Thucydides)

Archidamus' speech promotes attempted peace through logic. I think that this speech, though correct, lacks the persuasive qualities that are derived through hitting emotional strings. "...our self-control is the chief cause of a sense of shame, and shame of courage..." pg.25. Shame, discipline, and self-control are weak ideas compared to attacks on ego or condescension to your audience. Needless to say this speech would appear pathetic after listening to the first two. Archidamus ends his speech to his people by using Spartan logic of war-like tendencies to attempt to sway his people from choosing to go to war; “…we can’t work out whose chances at war are better in a speech. So we always make out preparations in action.” pg.28. This is ludicrous in that he is speaking to a people that prides itself on its military prowess, and wishes them to use mitigation and logic to avoid war. This goes against the entire mentality of Spartan culture. Their culture is the direct opposite of the Athenian in that the Spartans symbolize ‘action’ and the Athenian ‘words’.

Sthenelaidas speech is short yet displays a logical strength. He is a true Spartan and keeps the societal norm of military power rolling forward; "...those who are planning injustice spend a lot of time in discussions." pg.29. I took this to mean actions speak louder than words. Let’s go to war. Sthenelaidas' speech motivates listeners by the fear of the every expanding Athenian empire consuming Lacedaemonian territories. His quick speech delivers the doubt, and unrest created earlier to bring the Spartan Assembly to a secure position against the Athenians.

(Image courtesy of http://www.webcom.com/shownet/medea/ . Image of Ancient Greece.)

The final speech by Pericles of Athens speaking to his own Assembly puts forth words ahead of actions; "…they prefer war to speeches as a means of clearing away the charges against them." pg.32. I think that Pericles conceit persuades Athenians to his way of thinking; "...as I think best." pg.32 is a good example. His lack of action and arrogance of not only himself; but Athens; "We will not begin a war, but we will punish those who do."pg 35, prepare Athens for only failure. Pericles’ speech is the culmination of Athenian pride that is warped and twisted into the people believing that they can do no wrong and that they will always be victorious for the future generations. Regardless, if my opinions are right or wrong; actions do speak louder than words and are definitely more persuasive.

In summation, Thucydides does speak and remain seemingly neutral regarding governmental preference and loyalty. This neutrality allows for Thucydides' interpretation of events to become less distant than a normal historical perspective would allow. By adding this nuance, the theme of action versus words yields an insight onto humanity, and Greek society at this time.

For additional information about Thucydides regarding his life, opinions, and specifically his Concept of History, click here.

Pericles' Funeral Oration

In chapter 3 of Thucydides’ “On Justice Power and Human Nature,” Pericles performs a funeral oration for the fallen from the Peloponnesian war. He leads the people by example. He attempts to inspire the people to be better citizens, through his speech. The Athenians believe that “ what spoils action is not speeches, but going into action without first being instructed through speeches.” Pericles would appear to be honoring the men that died in war, but also shows that their death should inspire others to fight for the city. Pericles speaks of everyone’s fathers, democracy, Athenian strength in war, and Athenian wealth. This order alone seems important. The fathers fought for what existed at the time of Pericles speech. The fallen should be honored through the oration because they were trying to live up to the paradigm that their fathers set for them. Both the fathers and their children were fighting for democracy. This form of government empowers the people by giving them a voice if they choose to express it. Should another city come in and overpower the Athenians, that government would surely be overthrown, therefore taking that power away.

Sculpture of Athenian leader Pericles
Image courtesy of http://www.unf.edu/classes/freshmancore/coreabroad/

To reinsure the people, Pericles began to speak about Athenian power in war. He brags of how in no war there was no country that felt their full strength and abilities. Perhaps Pericles spoke of this to build hope and confidence in their abilities in the art of war. They would be fighting to preserve the wealth of Athens. To give the people the piece of mind that they would not have to worry about any enemy forces coming in and taking their fortunes. Pericles attempts to find action through his words. He tries to inspire men to take arms and follow their fathers in the fighting for Athens and all that it stands for, in that age. He lists his arguments in order of importance based on cultural definitions. It moves from the family to the city, to the military, to monetary wealth; this order shows where Pericles wants the people to define why they go to war. Honor from war comes not from what can be gained from it, for Athens is already the strongest city in Greece (the known world), but it comes from the honor that it would provide. Their fathers understood this and died for what they believed in, and Pericles makes this most important in his attempt to find action in his audience through his speech. “Hearing another man praised in bearable only so long as the hearer thinks he could himself have done what he hears.” No one wants to hear about the things another man did for honor if he himself had not already done it, or at least attempted it. There is another way of interpreting this quote: If you have not put your life on the line for the most important thing in your life, there is still time if you are still alive. Pericles is trying to find a way to inspire action in his audience so that they he may further reinforce how he leads the people through his own example.


As the Peloponnesian War progressed, a brutal civil war broke out in the city of Corcyra. The Peloponnesians supported one side, the oligarchs, and the Athenians supported the other faction, the democrats, though the majority of the conflict was between the Corcyreans themselves. The conflict at Corcyra was among the most violent occurrences of the Peloponnesian War, and it was one of the first of many smaller revolutions or wars that would break out over the course of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides uses Corcyra to give us an idea of all the various revolutions that occurred rather than describing each one individually.

Location of Corcyra

Image courtesy of http://www.cs.tufts.edu/~bzarit/thucydides.html

As he discusses the revolt, Thucydides describes the use of eloquent speeches to convince the masses to commit heinous acts of violence. He states, “So neither side thought much of piety, but they praised those who could pass a horrible measure under the cover of a fine speech. (pg. 92)” Ancient Greece was of course famous for (among many other things) its brilliant orators, including the Sophists and other philosophers like Socrates. One wonders if the same individuals who debated the nature of good and evil also called for the slaughter of their rivals. Thucydides also feels that the Corcyreans (as well as all of the other participants in the war) abandoned their virtues as soon as those virtues were put to the test; or, as Thucydides puts it, “And they reversed the usual way of using words to evaluate activities. (pg. 90)” Here one can see a sharp and distinct difference between the way the Greeks have traditionally described warfare and the way they conducted it. Earlier in his work, Thucydides gives an account of Pericles’ famous funeral oration, and Pericles glorifies the efforts of the Greeks in past wars (pg. 40), calling them, “valiant deeds of arms that we and our fathers performed against foreign or Greek invaders.” The Greek leaders invoked images of glorious and noble combat in order to motivate the populace.

As the revolt ended, the democrats seemed to come out on top. As they punished the oligarchs, they also persecuted a number of people for reasons that had nothing to do with the revolt itself, but rather because of personal rivalries or gain. Thucydides states, “They were beaten and stabbed by the troops in the lines, whenever any of them was spotted as someone’s personal enemy. (pg. 94)” The persecution of personal rivals under false accusations is something one can see throughout history, like in the Salem witch trials or the McCarthyism of the 1950’s, so it should be no huge surprise that this would occur in ancient Greece.

One of Thucydides’ major themes is human nature and how it is revealed in conflict. Revolts in places like Corcyra were some of the most negative illustrations of the cruelty and evil that humans can do. Thucydides shows how leaders can manipulate the population into doing things that most would never consider doing, and how the population often will blindly follow their leaders even if they are aware of the harm the leaders would have them do. It should be no surprise that one who lives in a time of war would have a fairly negative view of human nature and what humans are capable of doing.

For additional information on the strife at Corcyra check out this site

When reading Thucydides, one might debate whether the word or the deed was the best weapon in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides illustrates in chapter six how both sides used words and “negotiations” to fight in the war. Most interesting to me, though, was that the results of the negotiations themselves did not truly matter in their outcome. By this I mean that whichever option the target of the negotiations, whether it be the Melians or the Acanthians, should choose, their fate is already sealed before they ever start talking. Whichever side is leading the negotiations, the choice is simple, die or take their side. The Melians fought hard for a compromise of friendship and neutrality, but that was easily shot down as an option, as would have been any other suggestions.

Image of the island of Melos

Image courtesy of http://www.gla.ac.uk/archaeology/projects/melwww/melgeol.html

In chapter six, the Athenian representatives in the negotiations with the Melians address the issue of word verses deed in reference to honor. The Athenians said of people that are seduced by the supposed power of honor, “they are drawn by mere word into an action that is an irreparable disaster” (Thucydides, 107-108). In reading this it occurred to me that Thucydides may have been using the Athenians to describe exactly what was happening to them through the Peloponnesian War. In many instances they were drawn by honor or by words themselves into battle and into defending what was, or at least what they thought was, theirs. In the end however, they were not victorious and these words that may have seemed so convincing and promising ended up leading them to “irreparable disaster”.

In this same set of negotiations, the Athenians made another statement that seemed to be all too familiar to their own situation. After the Melians decided not to side with the Athenians, they were quick to judge the Melians and their actions. However, the words of their judgment applied much better to their own situation than it ever could have to the Melians. The Athenians said, “You are the only men who think you know the future more clearly than what is before your eyes” (Thucydides, 108). The Melians never claimed to know the future, only to know that whatever the future may be, they did not want to be under the rule of the Athenians. The Athenians however, were very confident in their forthcoming victory despite the fact that the truth was indeed right before their eyes. Too many people did not want to be under their rule for them to win this war. No matter how many victories the Athenians may have had to give them confidence, the attitude that is displayed here by the Melians is always present in some form throughout the Peloponnesian War. They were in the end shamed by their own arrogance.

It seems that the downfall of the Athenians is foreshadowed throughout chapter six of On Justice, Power, and Human Nature. They are no longer listening to what they themselves are saying and are already losing the battle of the brains, or words, in a big way. Not only is Brasidas winning people over to the other side for the Lacedaemonians, but the Athenians are losing people to the other side through their own negotiations. If the Peloponnesian War were truly a battle of words without action, it would have been a much shorter one with the same outcome.

For more information, check out:
this site and this site


Other C101 Pages of Interest

To learn about Thucydides views on democracy, and other Athenians that created an impact in society through literature please visit our classmate’s website:


This website from our classmates has Homeric views on hospitality. Their viewpoints of hospitality are complementary to ours on negotiation. Incorrect interpretation or failure to adhere to societal norms can bring about violent action not only in Homer’s time, but also later in Thucydides account of Athens history.


Athenian society is wrought with conflict and contradiction. Thucydides vehicle to portray this is action vs. words; our classmates explore Sophocles’ Antigone logic vs. madness. Look for references on how Antigone and Creon use words to define actions or reasons for circumstances.

Images at the top of the page: Spartan comes from here and Plato comes from here